Try it, Mikey! Why Teachers Shouldn’t Give Up on DI

mikey-life-cerealBy Melanie Eisen

Do you remember the Life Cereal commercials from a few decades ago, starring little Mikey – the notoriously picky eater? If you do, then you’ll probably remember the famous line his brothers say when he tries the cereal, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”

Mikey’s family was convinced he wouldn’t like it, but he tried it and to everyone’s shock … he liked it! Of course this was a commercial. Mikey had to like the cereal so that others would buy it for their picky eaters at home. Nevertheless, the message that Mikey tried something new still resonates with me. What would have happened if he didn’t like it? What would happen if I bought a box, gave it to my own children and they didn’t like it? I would have kept trying different kinds of cereal until I found the one they liked. Or I might have tried waffles. The part that stuck with me was that he tried it …

Trying DI doesn’t work

In a recent piece in Education Week entitled, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work,” James Delisle presents the argument that no matter how hard they have tried, teachers have not been successful in differentiating a heterogeneous classroom. Delisle believes that the key to successfully implementing DI is a homogeneous classroom. This means that until students are grouped according to ability, no matter how hard they try, teachers will not successfully reach students who have varied abilities, interests, and intelligences.

Or does it?

While teaching the second grade, I received training in DI. I was given options for how to engage my students and understand who they were as people and learners. I tweaked the lessons and tools that I had developed over my years in the classroom to allow more choices for my students. I hoped this would help them gain an understanding of the material and show me what they had learned. In my training, I was not promised that DI would solve all of the issues in my classroom. There was no contract stating that I would not have to work hard, or that I would not have to make mistakes and keep trying. There was no guarantee that DI was the ticket to meeting my students’ needs all of the time.

DI is not black and white

I kept working at introducing DI practices with the understanding that my efforts wouldn’t lead to education nirvana. It was not an easy process. I was not successful 100% of the time. It was frustrating when my students did not want to work with others, could not follow the generic directions I had provided, or could not meet the goals I had laid out for them and for myself. However, I believed in the idea that I could try another tool, ask my students what went wrong, and collaborate with my colleagues to redesign an activity or an assessment tool to better address my students’ needs.

We expect our students to try and try again when they struggle to master a new concept or skill; I knew that I had to model that – and not give up just because it was hard. Maybe it was the variety of the cereal that was the wrong fit. Maybe it was the cereal itself. I was determined and encouraged to try again.

It doesn’t matter. Just start.”

In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s recent blog post in Education Week, “Inventing Differentiation,” she shares that when asked how to bring DI into your classroom, “she …(is) inclined to say, ‘It doesn’t matter. Just start.’ ” Recognizing that such advice alone is not helpful, she outlines five principles that have guided her DI practice on the blog.

Dr. Tomlinson sets forth that DI requires that you take time to get to know your students. You and your students share the responsibility to create and maintain a culture of learning, growth, and recognition. Her principles are a wonderful guide and stress the 21st century tools of collaboration, communication, and creativity. The “just start” mantra serves to encourage teachers who want to try implementing DI to just go for it. Here are some entry points into DI:

  • Learner Profiles: Create a questionnaire for your students. The questions should help you learn about their preferences in learning, where they feel their strengths and weaknesses are, and what their goals are. If you teach the younger grades, send one home for the parents as well.
  • Schedules and Missions: Be transparent about what your objectives are for the lesson/day. Include the students in articulating what the mission is and how you will get there.
  • Be Proactive Plan: the questions you will ask during your lesson. This will ensure that you are reaching a variety of levels and encouraging your students to ask questions as well.
  • Training, Training, Training! Whenever you bring a new tool or strategy into your classroom – whether it be a “to do” activity, flexible grouping, or exit tickets – you need to make sure that the students know how to participate and what the expectations are. They need to be trained.
  • Take Polls: When I brought in a new tool or strategy, I would take an informal poll by asking “What did you think? Thumbs up, down or somewhere in the middle?” This immediate feedback helped me develop the classroom culture of working together to form our learning community.

As the Associate Director for Professional Development at the YU School Partnership, encouraging teachers to try new tools and strategies is something that I do in a variety of schools every day. More than this, my work is centered around helping teachers continue on their own learning path and keep striving to reach more of their students more of the time.

I agree with Mr. Delisle on one of his points; trying to differentiate in a classroom of multi-levels is hard. Time is the ultimate four letter word in education and getting to know your students, offer them choices, and honor their precious knowledge takes time. There will be success stories and stories of failed attempts and of frustrating moments. But I challenge teachers to just start … you might like it.

Melanie Eisen is Associate Director for Professional Development at the YU School Partnership.

cross-posted at